South Korea has turned to a former National Hockey League (NHL) defenseman to lead its men's national hockey team, hoping his playing experience and coaching acumen could help the country qualify for the next Winter Olympics on home ice.
The Korea Ice Hockey Association (KIHA) announced Wednesday it has signed Jim Paek, the first player of Korean descent to play in the NHL, as the new head coach and executive director of the men's national team. He agreed to a four-year deal but financial terms weren't disclosed.
Paek, 47, was born in Seoul but moved to Canada at age one. He was drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1985 and made his NHL debut during the 1990-1991 season.
Paek won back-to-back Stanley Cups with the Penguins, playing alongside superstars such as Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Ron Francis and Paul Coffey, in 1991 and 1992. Paek remains the only South Korean-born player to have his name engraved into hockey's Holy Grail.
After his playing career ended, Paek turned to coaching, and has been an assistant coach for the Grand Rapids Griffins of the American Hockey League, a minor league affiliate of the NHL's Detroit Red Wings, since 2005. The Griffins won the AHL title in 2013.
"It's long been a dream to lead the national team of my native country," Paek said. "It's a great honor to have the opportunity to realize this dream."
Paek's biggest task will be to put South Korea into the men's hockey tournament at the 2018 Winter Olympics, which will be held in PyeongChang, an alpine town about 180 kilometers east of Seoul.
Host countries don't automatically qualify to play in Olympic hockey competitions. Rene Fasel, president of the International Ice Hockey Federation, previously said he would consider giving South Korea a spot in the Olympics as long as the 2018 host improved its world rankings to No. 18 by the 2016 IIHF Congress, where the format for the 2018 Olympic competition will be determined.
South Korea is currently ranked 23rd, an improvement of 10 spots over the past four years. The country recently fast-tracked Canadian-born players to Korean citizenship in the hope of improving its world rankings.
"It will be a huge challenge to try to qualify for the 2018 Winter Olympics," Paek said. "But if we can set up meticulous plans and concentrate on accomplishing our goal, then we can expect good results."
Paek noted that South Korean players have good skating skills and fundamentals, and his job is to create an environment conducive to consistent improvements.
In April this year, South Korea was relegated from Division I Group A to Division I Group B, after a winless world championship at home in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province.
Yang Seung-joon, an executive director of the South Korean hockey governing body, said given his playing career in the premier hockey league and extensive coaching experience in North America, Paek was just the right person to help upgrade South Korean hockey.
According to Yang, Chung Mong-won, president of the KIHA, met with Paek last week during the latter's visit to South Korea and persuaded him to take over the South Korean team.
Paek will begin his term in the middle of next month, according to the KIHA.
Paek enjoyed his best NHL regular season in 1992-1993, playing in 77 games with three goals and 15 assists, all career-highs.
He was later traded to the Los Angeles Kings and played his final season with the Ottawa Senators in 1994-1995.
SEOUL, July 23 (Yonhap)